I’m now in my second week of indie development, and staying on schedule has proved elusive.
I can get immersed in many, many things. It may be positive like getting into a work groove. Or it may be, um, distracting, like getting hooked on a new game like Fruit Ninja or an oldie-but-goodie like Zynga’s Mafia Wars on my iPhone. How to combat this, and boost my productivity? One thing suggested more than once by others is to set small, achievable goals.

To Do, In Progress, and DONE!

In Bloomberg by Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg suggests: “Start with a small piece; fulfill one goal at a time, on time. Do it with all things in life.” In REWORK, the 37signals guys tell us, “momentum fuels motivation,” and “the way you build momentum is by getting something done and moving onto the next thing.”

I’ve taken this advice to heart in the form of my planning board, and am scratching my own itch by building an iPad app that suits my needs for To Do lists.

But what is it about setting these goals that fuels and fulfills you? And, is there something that this fulfilling goal-setting-and-achieving loop has in common with addictive iPhone games?

dopamineDopamine and Goals: Why Getting Things Done is a High

Science tells us the reason is biochemical: all these activities produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the reward molecule.

What does dopamine do?  Christopher Bergland, in “The Athlete’s Way,” explains:

“[Dopamine] facilitates acheivement, goal-oriented behavior, motivation, mood and movement.  It is the cause for the feeling that floods your body when you accomplish a goal” (Bergland 108).

“Setting goals and achieving them…guarantees a constant supply of dopamine, which is released during goal-oriented behavior and upon achieving a goal” (Bergland 149).

That amazing feeling that washes over you when you fix a bug, cross a finish line, are accepted to the app store, or launch a new business? Thank your trusty neurotransmitter dopamine.

Getting Dopamine the Easy Way: Games & Drugs

And we’re not just talking about huge, ambitious, time-intensive goals.  Not at all: “Making your bed in the morning can be a dopamine releaser if you acknowledge it as such” (Bergland 149). And here is the tie-in: slicing 300 pieces of fruit in a row on fruit ninja can ALSO be a dopamine releaser. And the game does everything in its power to reward you with sounds, colors, prizes and leaderboards.

This is my suspicion as to why we so often hear of Farmville addictions. Games like Farmville provides you an easy win: a quick burst of dopamine for achieving a tiny, tiny, fantasy-based goal, but without all the mess and fuss of exercise, or progressing towards a real-life goal.

Drugs are equally seductive: all the neurotransmitters with none of the effort of exertion!

“Caffeine increases dopamine levels in the same way that amphetamines do. Heroin and cocaine also manipulate dopamine levels by slowing down the rate of dopamine reuptake…. It is suspected that the dopamine connection contributes to caffeine addiction.” (Bergland 263).

Now, drug addiction is more complex of course, and often results from a lack of functional dopamine receptors in the first place (see “Beyond the Influence” p.42 and 50 for more info). But the point is: we like dopamine! It makes us feel good! So we seek it out–be it with iPhone games, with coffee, or with harder substances.

Generate Dopamine the Healthy Way: Music & Exercise

So knowing that dopamine makes us feel good, how do we turn this on its head, and use it to our advantage? If dopamine helps us build our momentum, and creates an environment where we crave crossing items off our list, how can we grease the wheels?

  1. Music on Shuffle
  2. Daily Exercise

In 2006, Menon and Levitin of Stanford University published a paper in NeuroImage called “The rewards of music listening: response and physiological connectivity of the mesolimbic system.”  They showed that there is a strong correlation between listening to music and the release of dopamine.  And music on shuffle? That produces even more dopamine!

“Randomness releases more dopamine, which is why people like shuffle mode and the radio.  Not knowing what song you are going to hear produces larger amounts of dopamine due to the lottery effect of unpredictability and reward” (Bergland 299).

Dopamine is also a major component of the post-workout chemical brain cocktail.  This is why it features so prominently in “The Athlete’s Way.”  Dopamine “is released during exercise naturally” (Bergland 108).  Dopamine is also released when you ANTICIPATE running or exercising, if you are someone who does so regularly.  And if you’ve ever had a friend, or been a runner yourself, you know how cranky they can get when they miss a run. 

This is drug addiction turned inside out and in your favor.  And this is what I’m looking for.  I want to get so hooked on setting and achieving goals, that I am slicing items off my lists ALL DAY LONG.  Throw in my music on shuffle. Mix it up with 20 mins+ of exercise a day. Top it off with visible goals staring me down from my planning board. I think I can do it, with a little help from my friend (SAY IT WITH ME NOW), dopamine.

2 Responses to “Goals, Exercise, Music, Drugs and Farmville.”  

  1. 1 Erich Kuersten


    And let’s not forget if you add SSRI meds to that mix, you get double the serotonin to go with your dopa and then you’re Bam Booom ZIpppp!

  2. 2 Leah ("Lee")

    Hm. “dopamine systems are not needed either to mediate the hedonic pleasure of reinforcers or to mediate predictive associations involved in hedonic reward learning. We conclude instead that dopamine may be more important to incentive salience attributions to the neural representations of reward-related stimuli. Incentive salience, we suggest, is a distinct component of motivation and reward. In other words, dopamine systems are necessary for ‘wanting’ incentives, but not for ‘liking’ them or for learning new ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes'”(Berridge & Robinson, 1998, p.1).

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